We recently ran an article, Out with the Glyphosate, by guest blogger Mollie Curry, about the dangers of glyphosate in our bodies and in the soil. We got a question from a farmer about effective substitutes for weed control for their vineyard. This is their question:
“We agree with what you are saying — and avoided Round up for several years – but have so far not found an effective substitute to get rid of weeds and grass under our vines — (except countless dollars for week-eating) Our young vines especially cannot compete with weeds! WHAT IS YOUR suggestion for organic weed control?”
First of all, let me say that I know the pain of weed managing an orchard. I’ve tried all kinds of things, such as sheet mulching, landscape fabric with mulch, landscape fabric planted with low growing grass (creeping red fescue), and weed whacking around the orchard plants can be nerve wracking (as careful as I am, I’ve done my share of damage).
So what is the best solution? For home orchards, things are relatively easy, just getting out there and hand weeding a couple of times during the growing season may keep things back adequately. But on a commercial scale, the systems have to be efficient and easy.
Here’s the big picture:
The promise of organic, beyond organic, regenerative, and integrated farms are robust, vital, ecosystems filled with vital plants, lots of insects, plenty of birds and wildlife, and thriving humans. If we mimic nature with some basic principles, we will create so much robustness that the balance will take care of itself and we won’t want or need to spray chemicals. In these systems, the good guys outnumber the bad guys (See Patryk Battle’s blog on farmscaping). In fact chemicals will throw the vitality into a tailspin and upend the goodness that we desire to attract.
And how does all this happen? The short answer is soil building. And there are three principles that instruct us on creating thriving farm systems based on how nature does it.
- Diversity – Nature doesn’t ever grow one species. In fact in the healthiest of systems, many species grow together in direct cooperation and competition (think rainforest). The more the better. This is why keeping wild areas of weeds on your farm is in fact important for attracting the diversity in the soil (microbes), in the air (birds and pollinators), and on the ground (wildlife). Diversity acts like the orchestra and the more diversity, the less insect and disease pressure you’re likely to have on your cash crop.
- Minimal disturbance – Nature’s disturbance takes the form of strong weather, which has shaped landscapes and lives since the beginning of time. Yet the tilling of soil and the spraying of chemicals is a particularly human disturbance that causes massive destruction to the integrity and microbial life of therein. We’re learning more and more about techniquest to avoid this such as carbon sequestering, water retention, no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, no till agriculture and rotation grazing. See some examples below of farmers who have grown soil in impressive ways.
- Recycling nutrients – Keeping the nutrients on the land, adding nutrients to the soil, and continuing to build the nutrient cycle are crucially important to regenerative agriculture. Over the past 50-100 years we’ve taken from the earth in terms of crops and not given back. This is having devastating consequences on our own health in the form of less nutrient dense food as well as on our environment. We nourish the soil through making sure the waste part of the system stays and helps to rebuild. This means animal waste, plant waste, compost, and cover crops. I even harvest my pee to return to the homestead system. Pee contains all the nitrogen I need to grow my own food – it’s an elegant system.
Some examples of our Hero’s and Shero’s in the “Building Soil” movement are using the above techniquest in their systems, regardless of their production model.
Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin is calling his system Restoration Agriculture. He and his family are converting former degraded corn farm into a perennial agricultural ecosystem. For the last 20+ years they’ve been working with nature to mimic the oak savanna biome. Trees, shrubs, vines, canes, perennial plants and fungi are planted in association with one another to produce food, fuel, medicines, and beauty. Hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, apples, and elderberries are the primary woody crops, and are planted along a keyline™-inspired water management pattern. They also incorporate grassy alleys between the tree crops which are often grazed by cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, pigs or chickens. These systems are building soil, retaining water, sequestering carbon, diversifying habitat, and cultivating the human being and our ecology. The farm is entirely solar and wind powered and farm equipment has the capacity to be powered with locally produced biofuels that are not taken from the human food chain.
Singing Frog Farm where Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser run a no-till vegetable production farm which is highly productive and profitable. They’ve quadrupled their soil organic matter, without nutrient leaching, while nearly tripling the total microbial life in their soils. They’ve increased bird and native bee populations and diversity and native perennial plant diversity and density. They’ve dramatically reduced water usage per crop, and they’re producing roughly $100,000 in vegetable sales per crop acre per year with over half of that revenue paying our year-round employees’ salaries. They follow these principles:
- Disturb the soil as little as possible,
- Keep a diversity of living plants in the ground as often as possible, and
- Keep the soil covered and protected as often as possible.
Gabe Brown visiting Western NC a couple of years ago teaching at our OGS Spring Conference with a full day workshop entitled “Treating the Farm as an Ecosystem”. We’re so lucky to have him on video part 2, part 3) thanks to our friends at Living Web Farms. . The amazing next generation of regenerative farming is happening in our NC region! Russell Hedrick in Hickory, NC, is featured on Part 2 of the video.
And here’s the specific picture:
While it’s true that all of these systems will make your farm more robust, it’s frustrating when you’re trying to solve a very specific problem and someone gives you a big picture lecture on soil building. You still don’t want grass and weeds growing up around your new vines! Weeds compete with water and nutrients, they can interfere with the plant’s growth, fruiting, and harvest, they can be a nuisance or worse (thistles can hurt), they can contaminate the product, and they can harbor pests and diseases.
Organic weed management in a vineyard is possible.
This article from Australia and published on the UC Berkely website, entitled “Organic Farming: Vineyard Weed Management” website contains loads of helpful information about organic weed management in a vineyard. I love everything about this article. They are taking an integrated approach and they list options and photos and references. They are specific and detailed. Their approach, which is all directly from their paper, is as follows:
- Get to know your weeds and understand weed ecology. The how, why, what, when, where of weeds.
- Enlist appropriate vineyard design including irrigation, vining, harvest systems which influence your approach to weeds.
- Explore a myriad of management methods that offer effective techniques that minimise negative impacts.
- Quarantine is used to minimise the introduction of weeds into the vineyard, and their spread between vineyard blocks.
- Hygiene reduces the spread of weeds within a vineyard including preventing weed seed set wherever possible; avoiding activity that spreads weeds vegetatively, and destroying weeds.
- Competition for water, light, and nutrients by desirable plants. Beware that bare soil = weed problem! Consider cover crops and green manures. Another great resource here.
- Mowing is relatively fast and causes minimal disturbance. Vineyard design must accomodate this of course.
- Grazing with sheep or geese has great potential and it adds nutrient cycling and potentially another income source.
- Heat in the form of thermal weeding (radiant, flame, steam, hot water) is useful to kill plant tissue.
- Rolling weeds and cover crops with roller instead of a mower. This leaves plants largely intact, to break down more slowly and create a longer-lasting mulch layer.
- Mulching inhibits weed growth and germination of seeds by creating a physical barrier to weeds and a limit to sunlight and water.
- Biological control such as beneficial insects that don’t harm the grapes but attack the weeds.
- Soil modification through changing the pH, salinity, fertility, moisture content, and compaction can change the composition and dominance of certain weeds.
- Mechanical cultivation destroys or buries weeds, disrupting their growth and preventing seed set.
- Solarisation involves covering the soil with clear plastic during hot weather. Also works for disease suppression.
- Hand weeding is effective and helps growers observe their soil, vines and vineyard closely.
- Chemical treatment in the form of organic herbicides (based on plant extracts) are available. Check with your certifying agent to make sure they are allowed.
- Make sure to monitor and provide feedback loops about what works and what doesn’t.
The trick is to try these in collaboration and concert with each other and keep experimenting to find what’s right for your farm. Another resource from NY State and Cornell is also helpful.
Organic Growers School has some great blog articles on landscape fabric from our Ask Tom series with farmer Tom Elmore. Check them out:
- Ask Tom: Plastic Mulch & Solarizing Soil
- Ask Tom: Using Landscape Fabric
- Ask Tom: Burning Landscape Fabric
- Ask Tom: Landscape Fabric Revisited
Please let us know if you’ve managed weeds in a vineyard in any of these ways. Or if you try them, how it turned out.
Author: Lee Warren
Lee Warren has been homesteading and farming for more than 25 years. She is the former Executive Director of Organic Growers School and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm in Rutherford County, NC. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and social justice issues.